You are here: Home / House / Blog / The North Wing Project: Protecting Collections, Improving Accessibility
Wed 30 Nov 2022
The North Wing Project: Protecting Collections, Improving Accessibility
Philippa Wood // Curator
Have you ever wondered how the family in a grand mansion might have amused themselves on the dark nights of the 19th Century? Hidden behind the scenes at Burton Constable are stores of precious materials which give a glimpse of the hobbies and amusements of the Constable family in the 18th and 19th Century.
Cellist Elinor Nicholson recording classical music in the Staircase Hall

Burton Constable's Print and Music collections capture Country House pastimes in a nutshell - from beautiful leather-bound books of music printed with their gorgeously illustrated covers to sheets of handwritten songs and accompanying dance instructions, to the intricate prints capturing heroic figures, Classical imaginings and satirical portraits.

Staff at the charitable foundation have been working hard over the past year using money granted by the Humber Museums Project to draw out these collections’ hidden stories, to keep them safe for future visitors and to create a space where visitors can view and enjoy them. With professional musicians and with staff and students from the University of Hull’s music department, we have recorded select pieces for our visitors and the wider audience to enjoy, capturing the sounds of the Hall’s entertainment in the 19th Century.

Curator Philippa Wood looks back at the trials and successes of this grand project - and at how the Foundation will build on them in the future.

A drunken woman in William Hogarth's satirical print Gin Lane dropping her baby while taking snuff
William Hogarth's satirical print Gin Lane; a woman drunk on gin drops her baby while taking snuff.
Aims and Objectives

Burton Constable's project in the North Wing, the oldest part of the Hall, aimed to fulfil two of the Humber Museums Project's key objectives. Firstly, to raise awareness of another facet of the 'Story of the Humber', revealing the hidden histories and untold stories within our collection. Secondly we wished to develop new partnerships to help us tell these stories in the most innovative and engaging way we could. Which was how, of course, March 2022 saw the Staircase Hall liberally festooned with over 30 microphones, the Great Hall turned into an impromptu recording studio and the Constable's very grand and gilded Erard piano brought back into use for a packed week of recording. 

Many of the pieces in the Constable's music collection exist nowhere else in the world. Some were written for or by members of the household, or dedicated to them. It's a truly extraordinary hidden gem! The family's print collection gives a glimpse of the interests and fascinations of the 18th and 19th Century high society - and some truly amusing exerpts of the grand satirical works of William Hogarth's whose characters almost always met with dire misfortune.

The Meiningen Trio at the end of a successful recording session
The Meiningen Trio at the End of Recording
Why This, Why Now?

Until fairly recently, Burton Constable's North Wing was a grace and favour flat. At the beginning of this project the rooms needed a little tender loving care, and the collections needed a change of home to keep them safe for future generations. Staff decided to combine these two needs into a single project, which aimed to:

  • Create our new storage and tour spaces in the previously under-utilised North Wing & refurbishment of these rooms
  • Create a new gallery for rotating displays of historic prints
  • Photograph, perform and record of pieces of music from our 19th Century music collections for use in exhibitions, around the Hall and in the public sphere
  • Research and write a new guided tour for visitors to enjoy
  • Create new displays of objects and prints
  • Purchase new storage materials and units to safeguard our collections
  • Research our music and print collections
  • Deliver interpretation training to staff and volunteers
  • Deliver a new guided tour to volunteers to trial the tour and train guides
  • Create a new search room for researchers

This was quite a list of tasks to accomplish! Simply managing to send musicians the music and arrange the recording session before the Hall opened for the 2022 season at Easter was a challenge - but one that was well worth it. Now, at the project's conclusion we can safely say that we have accomplished all the above - and more!

Restored spaces and rapt audiences: the restoration of the Pink Room is already proving popular
The Pink Room Before and After the North Wing Project

A year on the three rooms involved in this project have seen huge improvements courtesy of the hard work of the whole team here at Burton Constable.

The interiors themselves have been cared for with old display materials cleared and archive materials deposited at the East Riding Archives, old floorings taken up and drooping wallpaper re-adhered to the walls. 

The music collections have been rescued from their corridor store and boxed in acid-free cardboard to keep them safe. The music books have been reshelved to make them easier for staff to care for and researchers to access.

The greatest difference comes in the fact that we are now able to show these rooms and collections to visitors for the first time, with regular guided tours due to commence in Spring 2023. Visitors will be able to look at items of the family's music collections and to hear it playing in the background - and to learn about the extraordinary devotion that the Clifford Constable family had to learning and collecting music, and to hosting grand house parties to perform and dance with their friends from near and far.

Already these redisplayed collections have been used to engage the Foundation's volunteers with the story of these beautiful and well-loved objects, discovering a glimpse of country house entertainments at the height of the Victorian era.

In the Green Room next door, too, the changes are clear to see - new racking stands proudly to hold the Hall's framed collections, while display cases containing the family's 18th and 19th Century scrapbooks stand proudly for all to see.

The Green Room with Framed Prints and Scrapbooks - a Tiny Proportion of the Hall's Print Collections
Framing the View

As part of the project, a print gallery has been created for visitors to explore in their own time at the end of a guided tour exploring the fascinating and surprising details of the family's music and print collections.

These exhibitions, giving an up-close look at a selection of the prints which can't be displayed for long periods of time due to the damage light can do to them, will allow more and more of the Hall's prints to be mounted and framed over the coming years - allowing more of them to be seen by visitors for the first time, and ensuring that each visit will deliver something new.

A blank corrdor before, and then full of people viewing the print collections
From a Blank Canvas to a Bustling Gallery - Making Collections Accessible
University of Hull Staff setting up microphones; Graziana Presicce pianist; Meiningen Trio
Recording: University of Hull Staff set up microphones; Graziana Presicce Performs; Meiningen Trio
What Next?

Although the project has been an outstanding success, nothing ever goes completely smoothly and there has been a few bumps in the road.

A change in staffing halfway through the project meant that we have not been able to publish our research or progress as often as we'd planned, with this now intended to be released gradually over the coming months. In future we hope that similar projects could be used to upskill our volunteers in collections care and the creation of picture mounts to give a more sustainable and longer-lived boost to our capacity to improve the display of our collections.

Initial feedback has been both promising and helpful, with the volunteers on our trial tours making some excellent suggestions. While some of these such as requests for additional seating and more lighting have already been addressed with comfortable window seat cushions and illuminated magnifiers, we're still planning improvements to the gallery and thinking up ways to make the tour even more interactive.

We are very grateful to all the staff at the University of Hull's Music Department and hope to work with them in the future to record even more of our collections; watch this space!

This work would not have been possible without the generous funding grant given by the Humber Museums Partnership through Arts Council England.

Burton Constable wishes to recognise the effort of all Burton Constable staff and volunteers who have worked on this project and are enormously grateful to the coordinators of this Humber Museums Partnership funding stream, particularly Sarah Oswald and Dominic Rogan, for their constant support throughout the project, their openness to amendments, their advice on countering issues and their guidance on evaluation has been invaluable to this project.

We also wish to thank the following:

Mark Slater Hull University (University Project Coordinator)
Simon Debruslais Hull University (University Project Coordinator)

George Kennaway Professor at Huddersfield University
Geoffrey Cox Huddersfield University – Video Coordinator

Jeanice Brooks Lecturer at Southampton University

Katherine Saunt and Hannah Stamp East Riding Archives Service

Graziana Presicce Pianist
Camille Maalawy Vocalist
Elinor Nicholson Harpist
Josh Wilkinson Guitarist
George Kennaway, David Milsom, Meiningen Trio
& Jonathan Gooing

Fiona Chester Music Digitisation Volunteer
Sally George Music Digitisation Volunteer
Dianne Smith Music Digitisation Volunteer